I don't remember exactly how I started reading the words of Roger Ebert. I became a dilligent reader about five years ago, when I was almost thirteen. I was probably looking for a review on some movie I can't remember, likely trying to persuade my family to watch another that I wanted to watch. Even back then I was picky with my films. "Roger Ebert" was a name I'd seen on countless DVD covers, but other than that, I knew nothing about him. I couldn't picture him in my head. I'd never read a review of his.
Something about that first review must've impressed me, because I kept coming back for more. I'm not sure when I stopped looking for specific reviews and began reading everything he wrote for the pure pleasure of being surrounded by his ebullient voice. The thing about Ebert's writing is that he is always stunningly candid and beautifully personal. He's in the room with you as you read, his hand on your shoulder as tangibly as his words are in your head. My favorite thing Ebert ever wrote was his Great Movies series, in which he collected around 400 essays on films that stand the test of time and should be viewed by generation after generation. That series is, in my opinion, the noblest aspect of his long and distinguished career. It's a preservation for posterity; an encapsulation of film as an art form, with no barriers to nationality, language, or age. For me, reading those essays was very nearly as rich as viewing the films themselves.
Two main movies forever changed the way I viewed film: Star Wars and The Sound of Music. I saw both at such a young age, and they were both so epic in scope and photography, that both captured my heart and imagination. The moment I saw Julie Andrews twirling on a mountain or the Death Star exploding, I knew once and for all that movies would mean more for my life than a pleasant past-time or harmless two-hour excursion. But I never understood film. I was never able to place the irridescent feeling I experienced while viewing great cinema, and I didn't know where to find it.
That's where Roger helped me and his other millions of readers. The fundamental function of movie reviews is to inform the reader whether a movie is "good" or "bad," or worth paying money for. Ebert had quite the opinion on each individual film he reviewed, but his reviews were so much more than a thumbs up or thumbs down. They were a masterclass on what makes a great or terrible film: what emotional reactions a certain film illicits and why it does so, what drives a movie into the ground, and what elevates it to an immortal status. I constantly hear people complain about how they don't listen to "the critics" when choosing a movie. They'd rather trust the 30-second TV ads created by people who're paid buckoo bucks to make shit look alluring. "They're out of touch," I hear people complain about movie critics. "They're snobs." If Roger Ebert was a snob, then so is everyone who enjoys a good movie and wants to share it with their friends. Ebert's knowledge of film was vast and irrefutable, but his appreciation for it was fundamental and accessible. More than anything, he reacted to movies on a human level: one of excitement, laughter, and tears, and he wanted to guide others to the same experiences that so moved him. "Your intellect may be confused," he once said, "but your emotions will never lie to you." Roger didn't cultivate a generation of movie "snobs", but a generation of film connoisseurs, able to appreciate the grand gestures and infinite subtleties of great film at all its levels. And trust me, when your eyes are opened to the potential of film to inspire and amaze, it's impossible to close them again. I specifically credit Roger with countless film experiences that have changed my life, experiences I'll hopefully be able to describe on this blog with some level of coherence. He taught me that inspiration and the spark of genius can be found anywhere, in any film, and the connection inflamed by that spark is universal, to people of any color, gender, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status, or age. His last published words were these, a day before his death: "On this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I'll see you at the movies."
I'll never be able to adequately describe the effect Roger has had on the way I look at art, and through art, life. He's one of my biggest role models and personal heroes. He was famous the world over, but was extraordinarily humble and happiest when with friends and family. His courageous battles with cancer showed him the most important things in life, and he was gracious enough to pass them on to the rest of us. "I know it is coming," he wrote of death, "and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting...I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."
I spoke with Roger once, briefly, via Facebook. I was fifteen and wanted to know how to expose my reluctant family and friends to the fantastic films I'd found. He recommended starting with the films "everyone loves: Singin' in the Rain, The Third Man, Hard Day's Night, My Darling Clementine, Night of the Hunter...then sample some of the foreign films. The nice thing about Netflix Instant is that you need not feel bad when you stop watching." He asked where I was from. I told him, thanked him for his advice, and was ecstatic for weeks.
I would be remiss not to end with my favorite quote from this darling, wise man whose words have meant so much to me. "We are born into a box of space and time," he said, "and the movies come closer than any other art form in giving us the experience of walking in someone else's shoes. They allow us an opportunity to experience what it would be like to live within another gender, race, religion, nationality, or period of time. They expand us, they improve us, and sometimes they ennoble us. They also thrill us and make us laugh and cry, and for that gift I am very grateful."
We are and always will be indebted to you, Roger. We are eternally grateful. Rest in peace.